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Microsoft Research Steps It Up

Do you have one of those wildly popular Dance Dance Revolution dance pads at home? Ever think of using it to do e-mail? That could happen if a technology demonstration at Microsoft on Tuesday escapes into the wild.

Microsoft Research (MSR) kicked off its annual TechFest -- an internal two-day company exposition to show off some of the division's multi-faceted projects to employees -- by announcing Step UI as it's called.

Step UI is an application that uses a dance pad linked to a PC and lets you use the directional arrows and buttons on the pad as if it were a mouse and browser interface.

In a demonstration, a researcher stood on the dance pad and used the arrow keys to scroll through e-mails, stepping on a button to open and delete messages. A second demo enabled a user to use his or her feet to scroll through directories of digital photos and select, organize and tag them.

Part of the idea for Step UI came from the fact that we control other devices, from cars to pianos to sewing machines, using both our hands and our feet. "But with a PC, you're only using your hands," says researcher A.J. Brush, one of four who worked on Step UI. Reading and deleting e-mail is a repetitive task

Of course, it helps if you have a big display to use it with. And there are all kinds of scenarios that could be imagined that are probably not practical -- even the one demonstrated. But the project demonstrates only one of many possibilities. For instance, the dance pad could be replaced with some other device such as accelerometers attached to the user' legs and used to sense direction and velocity. A virtual reality-style headset might replace the monitor.

But with more evolution, even using off-the-shelf components, such systems could be used in specialized office scenarios such as for accessibility-challenged users. Or a similar system could enable office workers with carpal tunnel syndrome or other repetitive motion injury to share some of the workload, using their feet to scroll, for instance, while sitting at a desk. Both are applications that conceivably could be practical uses for the technology or of ideas that come out of the research.

Often, research projects trigger unintended side benefits, like a way to vent negative energy and get a little exercise in the process. "Stomping to delete spam is one of users' favorite things [about testing Step UI]," says Brush.

Meanwhile, don't get impatient for its arrival on store shelves. It likely won't, at least not in the way you might think. Research means just that, and Step UI is just a prototype of a possible use of a set of technologies. In fact, the whole idea is to have new ideas about how to do things and to sort them out for usefulness later.

The mouse and window-based interface, for example, was invented in the 1960s at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., but its importance was not really recognized, or taken advantage of, until the arrival of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and later the massive acceptance of Windows in the 1990s.

MSR's press conference was held Tuesday the day before Microsoft began its annual TechFest in Redmond. TechFest is an annual event meant to showcase projects in work at MSR to the company's engineers, developers and product designers, among other employees. It gathers researchers from all of the company's far flung research facilities -- China, India, the U.K. and sites in the U.S. -- for a two-day conference in Redmond.

The idea is to let the company's product-focused people see what's coming on the technology horizon and perhaps adapt some of them for use in their product areas. It is also part of the company's longer-term strategy to encourage technology transfer from MSR to the product divisions.

Also, in pre-Oscar news, another MSR researcher, John Platt, has been presented by a “technical achievement award” from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The award was presented for work that Platt and Demetri Terzopoulos, a researcher at the University of Toronto did on designing computer modeling techniques for simulating realistic-looking textiles in motion pictures.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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